Music: 3½ stars
Sound: 4 stars
Watch out, hip-hop: If you don’t stay on top of your game, you might get bumped out of the limelight by other forms of pop music. That’s the meaning behind the title of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s brash, lavishly produced collaboration, as Jay himself has acknowledged.
The album does accentuate the various core elements of hip-hop, brandishing lofty versions of rap, R&B, and soul. But Watch the Throne also fleshes things out with rock, dance — whatever else will do the trick. Key to the finest moments is the sound itself, overseen mostly by Kanye, who’s assisted by a slew of other studio saviors (including RZA and Swizz Beatz).
“No Church in the Wild,” for example, features an inescapable bass-powered groove that first seems to mosey on out of the jungle like a lusty lion. Here, Jay’s raps are nicely intertwined with liquid vocals from Frank Ocean, and everything moves mightily with the help of 88-Keys and Mike Dean. Then, on “Lift Off,” Kanye gets the production going (joined by the likes of Q-Tip and Pharrell) as a propulsive arrangement sets the stage for the soaring vocals of Beyoncé.
Another guest is none other than the late Otis Redding — or, rather, a sample of him from “Try a Little Tenderness.” As Jay raps on “Otis”: “Sounds so soulful, don’t you agree?” Agreed. Later, it’s time for the album’s danciest cut, “That’s My Bitch,” where a sizzling Elly Jackson goes toe to toe with Kanye’s biting wordplay.
It’s Jay, however, who makes the biggest impact at the mike. On “New Day,” he raps about what fatherhood might be like: “Sorry, junior, I already ruined ya / ’Cause you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya.” And on “Murder to Excellence,” he refers to the controversial shooting of a black college-football player by a white police officer: “This is to the memory of Danroy Henry / Too much enemy fire to catch a friendly.”
That said, Jay does trifle with material wealth here and there. A Hublot, Hova? Lame. I much prefer the way he boasted on, say, The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse in 2002: “I’m so far ahead of my time / I’m ’bout to start another life.”
If you look back, some of Jay’s and Kanye’s work has indeed been ahead of its time. But overall, the material on Watch the Throne isn’t — and a few of the tunes are simply average for J and K. Plus, what with all those core hip-hop elements and surrounding layers, the album ultimately lacks a cohesive musical direction.
Still, the high points are exceptional. Some songs might even make Jay-Z and Kanye West winners at multiple music-awards shows — helping to ensure that hip-hop will, for the time being, keep the throne.
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